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A New Approach to Holding Charter Schools Accountable

On paper, Harlem Day Charter School should be a resounding success. It spends more per pupil than most suburban schools. Class size is small. Yet student achievement is unacceptably low.
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This month, the State University of New York, one of the nation's strongest charter school authorizers, gave my organization, Democracy Prep Public Schools, final approval to restructure an existing charter school that was going to be closed for poor performance. It's a groundbreaking new approach to holding charter schools rigorously accountable for their students' academic performance and growth. The trade of autonomy for accountability, which is the hallmark of public charter schools, only works if low-performing schools are held responsible. What makes this decision so innovative is that it will allow this school to become a proof-point for what is possible in education reform without the usual disruption of a traditional school closure, in which parents are often forced to enroll their children in other under-performing schools in their neighborhoods. What's more, the initiative has the potential to turn on their ear the commonly held beliefs about what makes schools great.

On paper, Harlem Day Charter School should be a resounding success. With a mix of public dollars and private philanthropy, it spends more per pupil -- about $20,000 -- than most suburban schools. Class size is small -- with fewer than 20 students in a typical class. Teachers and families are generally happy, according to recent surveys, and the school facility is safe, clean and bright.

Yet student achievement is unacceptably low.

On the latest state standardized tests, just 20 percent of Harlem Day students were proficient in English Language Arts and 25 percent met standards in math. They're entering middle school without the basic reading and math skills they need for higher level work. I know this first hand. Democracy Prep, which currently operates two high-performing middle schools in Harlem, enrolls a lot of Harlem Day graduates and, like 90% of our entering students, most of them enroll in sixth grade requiring extensive academic remediation.

To their immense credit, Harlem Day's Board of Directors recognized the school's academic shortcomings and accepted that it would almost certainly be closed when its charter came up for renewal this year. But simply closing schools does not allow us to learn from their mistakes and create new and better opportunities for students. Realizing this otherwise missed opportunity, we answered the call from SUNY to propose an ambitious,high-stakes plan that will not only give the Harlem Day students a second chance at academic success, but also provide invaluable information on what really matters in improving student performance.

In the 1,700 page comprehensive restructuring plan we submitted, and which SUNY approved, we call for an entirely different educational approach. In fact, the only two things that will remain the same when Harlem Day re-opens as Harlem Prep in August are the students and the building.

Harlem Prep will be modeled after high-performing, no-excuses elementary charter schools, and will include a longer school day and year, a structured school culture, a focus on real-time data, rigorous academics, and exemplary educators. Teachers will undergo a full month of professional development in August and regular weekly trainings throughout the school year.

At full growth, we expect to operate this school -- as we do our others -- on public dollars, and class size will be much higher, around 27 students per class. After all, we strongly adhere to the belief that teacher quality and a clear and consistent mission -- not class size or seniority -- drive excellence in the classroom.

With these unconventional inputs -- fewer dollars, a lean staff and higher class size -- we hope to to raise achievement dramatically. We have set the ambitious goal of achieving 75% proficiency in all core academic subjects for students who attend Harlem Prep for two years or more.

We hear a lot of excuses from leading education scholars for why public schools are failing -- they often blame the families or the students. They argue that the burdens of poverty and the lack of parental involvement prevent children from learning. We're not arguing that these factors aren't important. However, we are 100% confident that with great teachers and great schools, educational barriers can and will be overcome.

That's what makes our new approach so exciting. We're going to control for all of these alleged barriers to success by taking the same group of children who are struggling to achieve in their current school, change all of the other inputs, and we hope to get an entirely different result. To paraphrase former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, poverty is no excuse for educational failure, and Harlem Prep has the potential to prove it.

This is a risky proposition, to be sure. Most charter schools, including ours, start from scratch, with one grade of students, and build up from there. Harlem Prep is starting at full kindergarten to fifth grade scale. There's a reason Democracy Prep was the only charter organization to even submit a proposal to do this work: it's going to be incredibly hard. But charter schools exist to push the envelope, take big risks, and try out new ideas in ways that traditional public schools can't, or won't.

There are no easy fixes to the public education crisis in this country, and the lessons we learn at Harlem Prep won't necessarily work for all schools. But before we accept blanket statements about the value of teacher seniority, class size, or accountability, it's time to identify some actual on-the-ground evidence. If we're successful, this model could provide an alternative to traditional closures that will hold more low-performing schools accountable, be less disruptive to families, and, most importantly, put more citizen-scholars on the path to success in the college of their choice.

Seth Andrew is founder and superintendent of Democracy Prep Public Schools. In the Fall DPPS will serve more than 1,000 students on five public charter school campuses in Harlem.